Tim Farron: A Lib Dem to do business with

While Nick Clegg remains comfortable in coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, has other ambitions.

When I received an embargoed copy of Nick Clegg’s opening speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, as my train made its way towards Glasgow, one line immediately stood out. The Deputy Prime Minister was soon to refer disparagingly to “some people in our party” who “don’t like us being too nasty to Labour”.

It was an unmistakable reference to my interview with Tim Farron in last week’s New Statesman, in which the Liberal Democrats’ president told me: “I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories, who compare him to Kinnock.”

Referring to the unsuccessful 2011 Alternative Vote campaign, Farron added: “He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick, so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.” That Clegg took exception to the comments was not surprising; Miliband has repeatedly suggested that his head would be the price of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

Two hours later, as Clegg walked out on stage, I waited in anticipation for his rebuke to Farron, the darling of the party’s left. But as he approached the relevant passage, the line was softened to “but let’s not be too nasty about Labour”. For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader.

After I broke the news on the NS’s Staggers blog, the party leader’s team politely informed Farron’s staff, who responded with amusement. When the Lib Dem president signals his preference for a coalition with Labour over another with the Conservatives, he does so in the knowledge that he speaks for most of his party’s members. A poll for the grass-roots website Liberal Democrat Voice this month showed that 54 per cent of party activists would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour, compared to just 21 per cent for the Tories.

In his own speech earlier that day, Farron, the Lib Dems’ finest platform orator, had spoken ambitiously of his desire to “build and lead a new consensus”, in a resurrection of the pre-2010 language of progressive realignment. Should Labour become the largest party after the next general election but fall short of a majority, he has positioned himself perfectly as a Lib Dem Miliband can do business with.

Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats. Photo: Getty

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition